FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Head Coach Brad Bedortha arrived in Flagstaff halfway through the 2008 spring season and since taking over the reins of the Northern Arizona University golf program, the Lumberjacks have won three conference titles—tied for the most of any Big Sky team in that time frame.
This Friday through Sunday, the three-time conference "Coach of the Year" leads the Lumberjacks into Boulder City, Nev., with the unquestioned belief that this year's team has the talent and ability to secure the school's fourth conference championship in nine years.
"At the end of the day, we have the players that can win this thing," says Bedortha. "I mean, four of the five golfers that scored last year at this tournament are doing the same thing again this weekend. We definitely have the players that can do it, but it comes down to our execution. Can we eliminate the big numbers, make some birdies when we can and perform at a competitive level? Yes, I believe we can because of our roster."
Front and center on the NAU depth chart is sophomore and 2017 Big Sky "Player of the Year" Sofia Anokhina, whose spring season has been nothing short of historic. In her 23 rounds this year, Anokhina has posted the lowest scoring average in Lumberjack golf history at 73.04. That mark, though, only tells half the story.
In 2017, Anokhina has practically eliminated the possibility of an above-par round, turning in a spring scoring average of 70.92 in 14 rounds played. That's right, Anokhina has shot more sub-70 rounds this spring (4) than plus-72 rounds (3). In fact, she hasn't recorded anything worse than an even 72 score since the last round of the Rio Verde Invitational…a tournament played in late February.
Additionally, her three tournament victories are tied for the most ever in a single season by a Lumberjack, and she has a chance to take sole hold of that No. 1 spot this weekend in Nevada.
"There's really no getting around it: she has been playing phenomenally all season long," confirms Bedortha. "As coaches, we're always talking about playing your best golf and not worrying about what anyone else is doing. It just so happens to be for [Anokhina] that her best golf, at least this spring season, has been the best of any golfer at three of those tournaments. I'm very comfortable and confident she'll go to conference, having played the course twice last season, and continue the great play she has shown [throughout 2017]."
It goes without saying that Anokhina will be scoring out of the No.1 slot for NAU at Big Sky's this weekend, as has been the case all season, but who will follow the Lumberjack stud? After all, collegiate golf is a team sport and NAU still needs three good scorecards to even have a chance at winning a tournament—let alone a conference title.
Bedortha and his Graduate Assistant Coach Langley Vannoy believe they have pieced together the best lineup that gives the squad the greatest chance at being successful on the Boulder Creek Golf Course this weekend.
As Bedortha referenced above, Cifuentes, Saum and Bezdicek all scored for NAU at last year's Big Sky tournament, with Bezdicek actually holding a share of second place for 36 holes (71-78) before ultimately shooting a 6-over-par 78 on the final day of action for 16th place (5-over 221). Saum tied for 21st after 54 holes with a 7-over 223 (71-75-77) while Cifuentes finish tied for 29th with a three-day total of 10-over 226 (75-74-77).
While Vannoy acknowledges the strength of the roster starts with Anokhina, she is quick to note that it finishes with the way the rest of the Lumberjack athletes compete this weekend.
"Conference championships is kind of the 'tournament of the year' that they've been working toward all season," said Vannoy. "Having [Anokhina] on the team and knowing she is more-likely-than-not going to post a good score gives them confidence and reassurance from a team perspective. At the same time, it lessens the personal pressure on the rest of our golfers. That way, all they have to do is go out there and play golf."
"Obviously, having [Anokhina] out in front leading the way has helped a boat load, but the other golfers are starting to follow her lead. [Saum] is on the cusp of playing very, very well, while [Cifuentes] is showing great flashes and recently, she has been beaming with confidence at practice."
Confidence is nice, but it comes down to execution: how are the Lumberjacks going to put themselves in a position after 36 holes to contend for the conference title during that final set of 18? For Vannoy, she believes the answer lies within the team's ability close.
"The key this weekend for our team is going to be our finish: we need to finish well," said Vannoy. "Throughout the whole season, if you look back at every round, we fall short in the last couple of holes. If we can finish well, maybe a little better than we have been all season, then that'll give us the edge."
"That requires our golfers playing each and every shot at the same focus level. Being dedicated to the process and maintaining a strong concentration level is what, I believe, will be the difference in an okay finish and a great finish."
All of this anticipation comes to a head tomorrow morning at 8:30 a.m. PT when Bezdicek tees off on the par-72 Boulder Creek Golf Course, which plays at 6,395 yards. Skibba will follow at 8:39, with Saum teeing off at 8:48, Cifuentes at 8:57 and Anokhina at 9:06.